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Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory is a framework that explains how human development is influenced by different levels of environmental systems, from the immediate surroundings to the broader culture (Cherry, 2023). These systems include the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem, each representing a different layer of interaction between the individual and their environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The theory suggests that development is shaped by the bidirectional influences of these systems, as well as by the individual’s own biological and psychological characteristics (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). According to this theory, understanding human development requires examining the complex and dynamic relationships among these ecological systems and their impact on behaviour and outcomes (Simply Psychology, 2024).

The microsystem

The microsystem is the first and most immediate level of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. The microsystem includes the people and settings that the individual interacts with directly and frequently, such as family, peers, school, neighbourhood, and community (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). These interactions are bidirectional, meaning that the individual can affect and be affected by the people and places in their microsystem. For example, a child’s development can be influenced by their parents’ parenting style, their teachers’ expectations, their friends’ behaviours, and their cultural norms. The quality and nature of these relationships can have positive or negative effects on the individual’s growth and wellbeing (Bronfenbrenner, 1994).

The mesosystem

The mesosystem refers to the interactions and connections between the different microsystems that the individual is part of, such as family, school, peers, neighbourhood, etc. (Simply Psychology, 2024). For example, the relationship between a child’s parents and teachers is part of the mesosystem, as it can affect the child’s academic performance and behaviour at school and at home. The mesosystem can have positive or negative effects on the individual, depending on the quality and consistency of the interactions between the microsystems (Helpful Professor, 2023). Bronfenbrenner (1977) argued that the more links and communication there are between the microsystems, the better the developmental outcomes for the individual. Therefore, the mesosystem plays an important role in shaping the individual’s growth and behaviour across different contexts.

The exosystem

The exosystem refers to the settings or contexts that indirectly affect a person’s development, such as the parents’ workplace, the mass media, the school policy, or the local government (Simply Psychology, 2024). These settings may not involve the person directly, but they can have significant impacts on their wellbeing, behaviour, and opportunities. For example, a parent’s job satisfaction, stress level, income, or work schedule can affect their parenting style, availability, and relationship with their child (Helpful Professor, 2023). Similarly, the mass media can shape a person’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and norms through the images and messages they convey (Helpful Professor, 2023). The school policy can influence a person’s academic performance, selfesteem, and social interactions by setting rules and expectations for students and teachers (Verywell Mind, 2023). The local government can affect a person’s access to resources, services, and support by creating laws and policies that promote or hinder their rights and needs (Springer Link, n.d.). Therefore, the exosystem is an important level of analysis for understanding how broader social and environmental factors can indirectly shape a person’s development.

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The macrosystem

The macrosystem is the fourth level of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. The macrosystem accounts for the impact of cultural beliefs, values, customs, and social norms on human development (Structural Learning, n.d.). For example, a child growing up in a collectivistic culture may value interdependence and harmony more than a child growing up in an individualistic culture that emphasizes autonomy and competition. The macrosystem also includes the political and economic systems that affect a child’s wellbeing, such as laws, policies, regulations, and resources.

For instance, a child living in a democratic country may have more opportunities and freedoms than a child living in an authoritarian country. A child living in a wealthy country may have better access to health care and education than a child living in a poor country. The macrosystem influences the development of children both directly and indirectly, through its effects on the other levels of the ecological systems theory: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the chronosystem (Smartdataweek, n.d.). The macrosystem can create opportunities or barriers for children’s development depending on how well it supports the needs and interests of children and their families. The macrosystem can also change over time and across contexts, reflecting historical events and cultural diversity (Helpful Professor, 2023).

The chronosystem

The chronosystem is the fifth and final level of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, which describes how different environmental systems influence human development. The chronosystem encompasses the temporal dimension of development, meaning that it captures how events and transitions over the life course, as well as sociohistorical circumstances, affect the individual’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

For example, the chronosystem can include the impact of being born in a certain era, experiencing a war or a pandemic, changing schools or jobs, getting married or divorced, or ageing and facing health issues. The chronosystem recognizes that development is not static, but dynamic and influenced by historical and personal changes (Structural Learning, 2023). According to Bronfenbrenner (1979), the chronosystem can also interact with the other levels of the ecological model, such as the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem, creating complex patterns of influence over time.

Detailed example

A detailed example of how these systems impact the development of an individual is as follows:

The microsystem is the most immediate and direct environment that contains the developing individual, such as family, school, peers, and neighbourhood. The interactions and relationships that the individual has with these people and settings directly affect their development. For example, a child who has supportive and nurturing parents may develop positive self-esteem and social skills, while a child who experiences abuse or neglect may develop emotional and behavioural problems.

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The mesosystem is the interconnection between the different microsystems that the individual belongs to. It reflects how these microsystems influence each other and affect the individual’s development. For example, a child’s academic performance may be influenced by the quality of their relationship with their parents, teachers, and classmates.

The exosystem is the broader social system that indirectly affects the individual’s development. It includes settings and events that the individual does not directly experience, but that have an impact on their microsystems. For example, a child’s development may be affected by their parent’s workplace conditions, community resources, or public policies.

The macrosystem is the overarching cultural and societal system that shapes the individual’s development. It includes the values, beliefs, norms, customs, laws, and ideologies of the society or culture that the individual lives in. For example, a child’s development may be influenced by their gender roles, religious beliefs, ethnic identity, or socioeconomic status.

The chronosystem is the temporal dimension that reflects how historical changes and life transitions affect the individual’s development. It includes both external events (such as wars, natural disasters, or technological innovations) and internal events (such as biological changes, psychological crises, or personal achievements) that occur over time. For example, a child’s development may be influenced by their birth order, generational cohort, or life stage.

These systems interact with each other to produce the final character development outcome of the individual. For instance, a child who grows up in a poor family (macrosystem) may have limited access to quality education and health care (exosystem), which may affect their academic achievement and physical wellbeing (microsystem). Their relationship with their parents (microsystem) may also be strained by economic stress (exosystem), which may affect their emotional security and attachment (mesosystem). These factors may shape the child’s personality traits, values, goals, and coping skills (chronosystem).

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International encyclopedia of education (Vol. 3, 2nd ed., pp. 16431647). Elsevier.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32(7), 513531.

Cherry, K. (2023). A comprehensive guide to the Bronfenbrenner ecological model. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/bronfenbrennerecologicalmodel7643403

Helpful Professor. (2023). 5 mesosystem examples & a simple definition (Bronfenbrenner). https://helpfulprofessor.com/mesosystemexamples/

Helpful Professor. (2023). 7 Exosystem Examples & An Easy Definition (Bronfenbrenner). Retrieved from https://helpfulprofessor.com/exosystemexamples/

Helpful Professor. (2023). 7 Macrosystem Examples (from Ecological Systems Theory). https://helpfulprofessor.com/macrosystemexamples/

Simply Psychology. (2024). Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/bronfenbrenner.html

Simply Psychology. (2024). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system’s theory. https://www.simplypsychology.org/bronfenbrenner.html

Simply Psychology. (2024). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. https://www.simplypsychology.org/bronfenbrenner.html

Smartdataweek. (n.d.). Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory Smartdataweek. https://smartdataweek.com/article/bronfenbrennersecologicalsystemstheorysimplypsychology

Springer Link. (n.d.). Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/9780387790619_940

Structural Learning. (2023). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model. https://www.structurallearning.com/post/bronfenbrennersecologicalmodel

Verywell Mind. (2023). A Comprehensive Guide to the Bronfenbrenner Ecological Model. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/bronfenbrennerecologicalmodel7643403

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